CABANATUAN CITY, April 23, 2004
By Nelson Beltran – A proud son of Nueva Ecija gifted his kababayans with a rousing victory even as the brand-new overall leader braced for the tough task ahead with yet another strong finish halfway through the 21-stage Air21 Tour Pilipinas yesterday.

Joel Calderon, a farmer from the nearby Guimba town, made sure a Novo Ecijano victory would be celebrated in the day, unleashing the ride of his life for a solo finish in front of the old provincial capitol here.

Enrique Domingo, The STAR carrier and yellow-jersey holder, came in second as the long-time RP team mainstay made significant moves on the relatively easy route from Pangasinan and pulled farther away from his rivals after eight stages covering a total distance of 1,362 kilometers.

But it’s the lull before the storm.

Another tough mountain climb beckons the 82 remaining riders as the Tour goes up to Solano in Nueva Vizcaya today, passing through the Sierra Madre range in the border of Nueva Ecija and Nueva Vizcaya via Dalton Pass.

Domingo, a sprint specialist, expects his chief mountain-climbing rivals to make their move today.

Among those fancied to make impact in the ninth stage are Nueva Vizcaya pride Ryan Tanguilig, his fellow RP trade team rider Ronald Gorantes and RP team mountain bike riders Eusebio Quinones, who arrived 79th yesterday– some 15 minutes behind the lap winner and Eric Feliciano.

"Bukas ko na pagiisipan iyan. Dahil kung pagisipan ko na ngayon pa lang, baka hindi ako makatulog," said Domingo, who stretched his lead to his closest pursuer in the individual competition from 12 seconds to seven minutes and 19 seconds.

Going to Solano, Tanguilig, who placed third yesterday, is now at second, followed by Calderon 9:58 off the pace then Quinones (12:40), Tomas Martinez (12:49), Merculio Ramos (12:58), Albert Primero (13:14), Santy Barnachea (15:47), Joseph Millanes (15:52) and Renato Dolosa (16:09).

Calderon, Domingo and Tanguilig were in the group which broke away from the peleton just after coming out of the Dagupan proper.

They rode as one group until Calderon made a show in the day as he drew cheers from his peers and supporters while passing his native Guimba town which is only about 50 kilometers to the finish.

"Noong nakita ko yong mga kabarangay ko kahit hirap na hirap na ako, lumakas uli ako. Nakakuha ako ng panibagong lakas sa kanilang palakpakan," said 23-year-old Beer na Beer fourth man, who was welcomed at the finish line by his wife Belinda and two-year-old son Jig.

"Sa totoo lang, kahapon pa ako gigil na gigil kumuha ng lap," added Calderon who was beaten for stage honors in Dagupan by fellow Guimba native Oscar Fronda.

Domingo gained more sprint points in the stage and could have posed a serious challenge to Calderon for top podium honors if not for a mechanical trouble a few kilometers to the finish.

"Nasa likuran ako tapos yumuko pa yung handle bar ko kaya hindi ko na hinabol," said the reigning sprint king.

Though leading the fight for the individual championship, Domingo, however, stressed his main concern is the team event and the sprint category in this P4.7-million cycling spectacle sponsored by Red Bull as the official energy drink, Summit, Pharex, Isuzu, Lactovitale, Gatorade and Elixir Bikeshop.

"Sa individual hanggang hawak ko yong yellow jersey ilalaban ko. Pero ang talagang habol ko ay ang team at sprint dahil doon malaki ang premyo," he said. "Sabi ko nga sa mga teammates ko huag nila akong intindihin. Basta ilaban nila ang team at bahala na ako sa sarili ko."

Domingo’s No. 3 man Joseph Millanes finished sixth and No. 6 man Desi Hardin 14th as the Postmen remained on the lead although second placer Beer na Beer cut three minutes in its time deficit after the seventh stage.

The Postmen now only lead the Victor Espiritu-led Beer na Beer squad by 20 minutes and 44 seconds in the fight for the P1 million top prize in the team event.

In the sprint, Domingo, with 33 points, is now 19 ahead of closest rival Villamor Baluyot. Two Postmen in Lloyd Reynante and Millanes follow with 12 and seven, respectively.

In the Summit King of the Mountain battle, Reynante and Primero are tied with 17 points, followed closely by three-stage overall leader Feliciano with 16.

"Trabaho ako bukas (today) dahil tabla kami ni Primero at malaking points ang paglalabanan sa Dalton Pass," said Reynante.

TOUR NOTES: Halfway through the Tour and the fancied comebacking champion Victor Espiritu has yet to make an impact. However, the 1996 titlist is still hopeful he can contend for the crown. "Ang hirap gumalaw dahil bantay sarado ako. Pero pinapakiramdaman ko pa rin ang katawan ko. Tingin ko may pagasa pa," said Espiritu, running 29th, over 30 minutes off the pace. Asked what his plan is in the Tour’s stage in his home province today, Tanguilig just said "secret" then flashed a sheepish grin. A native of Aritao, the PLDT skipper is among the favorites in the Dagupan-Solano stage spread over 145 kilometers. Espiritu even mentioned Tanguilig as among the riders he feared the most in this tour… Placido Valdez is actually the favorite cycling son of Nueva Ecija. Like Espiritu, Valdez has yet to create a stir in this tour. In the ride to his native town Cabanatuan, Valdez checked in 54th, 15:20 behind Calderon. In the overall tally after eight stages, Valdez is second to last among team captains at 53rd. Former back-to-back champion Carlo Guieb is last at 57th.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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